Tuana Phillips, a staffer with the Chesapeake Research Consortium, holds an adult blue crab during a trip to Smith Island, Maryland. With its bright blue claws, the colorful crustacean is one of the most recognizable species in the Chesapeake Bay. A blue crab’s strong claws allow it to crack open or pry apart the shells of clams, snails, mussels and more in its search for a meal.
But blue crabs don’t just use their claws to find food: they can also use the powerful pincers to defend themselves. Their sharp and strong grip can be quite painful, as anyone who has ever been pinched by one can confirm. And if threatened, a crab may break off claw or leg to try to escape predators; the limb will later regrow through a process called regeneration.
Crab claws have made headlines in recent months with viral images and videos showing the crustaceans wielding everything from cigarettes to knives. And though these posts may seem silly, as Jack Cover of Baltimore’s National Aquarium told The Washington Post, the crabs in these images are “absolutely distressed”: either unable to let go of what they’re holding or instinctively clamping their claws in self-defense. If you see a blue crab, it’s best to avoid putting anything—especially your fingers—between its claws.
Learn more about Callinectes sapidus, the blue crab.
Image by Will Parson
For centuries, Chesapeake Bay residents and visitors alike have enjoyed the many benefits oysters have brought them. They’re a source of income for the watermen who harvest them, joy for the people who eat them and, for everyone else, they’re the bottom-dwellers that help filter the water in the Chesapeake Bay. But decades of overharvesting have depleted oyster stock to the point where current populations are less than one percent of historic levels. To reconcile a high demand with desperately low numbers, many in the oyster business are turning to aquaculture, or underwater farming, for solutions.
Rappahannock Oyster Company was once an oyster farm like many others; buying wild spat (baby oysters), laying them underwater on leased plots for three years and then dredging them back up. But when cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton took over their grandfather’s business in 2001, they saw a chance to revitalize the company and shake up how they farmed oysters. They began trying new approaches, such as buying seeds from a hatchery instead of spat taken from the Bay, and putting them into cages instead of directly on the river bottom.
And they didn’t just change the way they farmed oysters—they also changed how they did business. A tasting room at their farm in Topping, Virginia, and oyster bars in Richmond, Va. and Washington, D.C., serve the dual purpose of bringing oysters to consumers and educating them about farm-grown oysters. Chief Operating Officer Anthony Marchetti explains that their process is more sustainable; instead of further depleting the Bay’s oyster stock, “every oyster we put in the water is one that wasn’t there before.”
Through their method of oyster farming, Rappahannock Oyster Company hopes to get their oysters to hungry customers without impacting the long-term health of the Bay. One of their goals, Marchetti says, is to take the pressure off the wild stock of oysters, to someday get back to levels where they could be harvested—with smart management—without worrying about their or the Bay’s viability.
Oyster farming is becoming the norm in Virginia. They are the most rapidly developing sector of Virginia shellfish aquaculture, and the state is number one in oyster production on the East Coast. Newcomers to the field aren’t interested in further depleting the wild populations, says Marchetti. They’re opting for aquaculture, he says, because “you reap what you sow.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), upgrades in wastewater treatment over the last twenty years have significantly lowered the amount of nutrient pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay, effectively meeting the sector’s 2025 goals under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, a decade early.
Since 1985, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from wastewater in the Bay watershed have decreased by 57 percent and 75 percent, respectively—this despite an increase in both population and the volume of wastewater to be treated. Thirty years ago, wastewater accounted for 28 percent of nitrogen pollution and 39 percent of phosphorus pollution; the sector now accounts for just 16 percent of the overall loads of each pollutant.
“The wastewater sector is leading the way at this point in our efforts to restore the Bay and local waters,” said EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin in a release. “While we’ve reached a critical milestone in reducing pollution from wastewater plants, we need to keep up the momentum and ensure that other sectors do their share.” Garvin and other officials announced the news Tuesday at Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington, D.C.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes portions of six states and D.C., is home to 472 municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants. Over the last 30 years, improvements at the ten largest of these treatment plants have prevented 240 million pounds of nitrogen and 48 million pounds of phosphorus from flowing into the Bay.
Scientists expect low river flow and reduced nutrient-rich runoff from the Susquehanna and Potomac Rivers this spring to result in an average to slightly smaller-than-average dead zone in the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay this summer.
Aquatic life—from blue crabs to underwater grasses—relies on dissolved oxygen to survive. When nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose, the resulting areas of little to no oxygen, known as dead zones, can suffocate underwater plants and animals. The latest forecast predicts a mid-summer hypoxic, or low-oxygen, zone of 1.58 cubic miles: close to the long-term average. The anoxic, or no-oxygen, zone is expected to reach 0.28 cubic miles in early summer and grow to 0.31 cubic miles by late-summer.
This forecast, funded by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is based on models developed at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan and relies on estimated nutrient loads from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). According to USGS, 66.2 million pounds of nitrogen entered the Chesapeake Bay in from January to May 2016, which is 17 percent lower than average nitrogen loadings.
Over the next few months, researchers with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will monitor oxygen levels in the Bay, resulting in a final measurement of the Bay’s dead zone later this year.